An article this week by Patrick Healy in The New York Times discusses the controversy over the selection of a director for August Wilson's play Joe Turner's Come and Gone. This is the first time a play of Wilson's has been produced on Broadway with a white director, Tony-winner Bartlett Sher.
Wilson, who died in 2005, always insisted that African-Americans direct major productions of his works. He felt black directors could best interpret his plays, which deal with African-American life in the 20th century. And he wanted to provide them with opportunities that were sorely lacking on Broadway. His widow, Constanza Romero, gave the go-ahead for Sher to direct this Lincoln Center revival.
I haven't seen the play, so I can't comment on whether or not Sher was a good choice. (Broadway & Me weighs in with, as usual, a terrific and perceptive review.) But I can see both sides of the issue.
It seems to me that you're going to be pretty limiting if you start assigning shows to directors based on race, religion, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.
A good director should be able to direct a play that might be the furthest thing from his or her own personal experience. That should include African-Americans directing plays with white casts. And Asian-American and Latino directors, too. Who knows, perhaps their interpretation will bring something new and vital to the table.
Look at a few recent examples: Annie Dorsen directed Passing Strange on Broadway, the story of a young African-American man; and Kate Whoriskey is directing Ruined off-Broadway, about the lives of women in the African nation of Congo. Both are white. Thomas Kail, who as far as I know isn't Latino, directed In the Heights, about a Latino neighborhood in New York City.
Still, I understand what Wilson was trying to achieve - a body of work that would be performed and presented by African-Americans, both onstage and backstage.
In the examples I just mentioned it would have been nice to include some of the African-American directors who have helmed shows on Broadway with largely white casts but I don't know if there are any, at least not recently.
That, it seems to me, is the heart of the matter - the lack of black directors - not only on Broadway, which is, after all, a pretty small place, but off-Broadway and in regional theatres all across the country. (And while we're at it, what about stagehands and choreographers and costume and set and lighting and sound designers?)
It would be great if Lincoln Center, now that it's broken the color barrier with Joe Turner's Come and Gone, would do its part. Andre Bishop, the artistic director, seems to understand. In the Times article, he says, “This experience has started a conversation about opportunities for black directors, and I’m taking it very seriously.”
I hope he does take it seriously because honestly, I think as theatergoers, we'd all benefit from a diversity of voices and experiences - both onstage and behind the scenes.
Some of the comments on the Times' site have been critical of Wilson's widow for allowing Sher to direct the play. But Romero is his sole executor and I have to believe that she and Wilson discussed what would happen after his death. Romero alludes to this in a 2007 Seattle Times article:
"I lived long enough with August to feel I knew what he wanted done with his work. ... Before he died we touched base on a few things. He understood I had to make decisions that would benefit his body of work, his legacy."